By now a thousand think pieces and recaps have been posted online reacting to the Oscars. Some have already moved on and closed the book. By tomorrow morning, the Academy Awards news cycle will be over, and people will be finding new things to discuss.
I, however, have not stopped thinking about Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens To You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. It’s a moment that, as a survivor of abuse, I will continue thinking about for the rest of my life.
I have always been a fan of Lady Gaga. Though I’m one of those people who feel ARTPOP was a musical misstep, I enjoy The Fame, The Fame Monster, Born This Way and even Cheek To Cheek (though it admittedly took me awhile to give the latter a listen). Gaga has used her position as one of the major recording artists of our generation to shed some light on a lot of different social issues, particularly those concerning the LGBT community. More recently, however, she has become a very loud voice in the discussion about sexual abuse.
“Til It Happens To You,” co-written with songwriting legend Diane Warren, is about that very topic. Lyrically, it asks listeners to stand in the victims’ position without judging or undermining any turmoil a victim might experience. The Hunting Ground itself is about rape on college campuses, and one of the best films I saw last year. If you haven’t caught up with it yet, I implore you to do so as soon as possible.
What I love so much about Lady Gaga is that she truly practices what she preaches. She was already doing an immense service campaigning for this song and film during the awards season, which in turn brought this conversation to a larger platform. But as singer/songwriter Kesha’s case against alleged abuser Dr. Luke has gotten more and more attention in the media, Gaga has bravely stepped into Kesha’s corner. She not only offered tweets in support of her plight, but has recounted her own experiences with assault and publicly denounced major label Sony’s decision not to cut ties between Kesha and her abuser. It’s a powerful move, but also an admirable one. While I’m sure she took potential backlash or blackballing from the industry into question, ultimately, doing the right thing was more important to Gaga.
For her Oscar performance, Gaga was introduced by Vice President Joe Biden. Though he received a standing ovation and emerged all smiles, Biden wasted no time bringing the attention to what really mattered.
“We must change the culture so that no abused woman or man has to ask, ‘What did I do?’ They did nothing wrong,” Biden said, encouraging viewers to join the It’s On Us campaign.
As the performance began, Gaga kept things relatively simple, with none of the visual effects from her Bowie tribute, or the eye catching outfit she wore at the Super Bowl. Wearing all white and sitting at a white piano, she played the song and offered one of the most emotionally charged, and raw, performances in her career. And then, the curtain behind her moved, and out walked a group of 50 men and women of all different races who joined hands to close out the performance. “Not your fault” and “It happened to me” were written on their wrists.
The sheer power of it eclipsed her Sound of Music tribute from last year’s ceremony, and cemented the performance’s place as one of the most important moments in Oscar history. There was not a dry eye in the audience, as everyone got on their feet and applauded what they had just experienced. Sam Smith then, now famously, walked up to accept the award that really should have gone to Gaga. The camera panned to her face in the audience, but she applauded Smith and did not look the least bit angry or upset.
After the ceremony ended, I stayed awake for another two to three hours, still emotional over what I had seen. As a survivor of abuse, it was incredibly powerful to see someone like Lady Gaga standing on the stage at the Academy Awards, and giving a voice to victims of sexual assault.
I struggle with what happened to me every single day. To hear my Vice President and one of the world’s biggest artists speak on these issues on national television and validate my pain, my anguish is powerful, powerful stuff. I won’t name names, and I won’t recount the details. That’s a conversation for a different day, and one that I don’t intend to have on a public forum. But what I will say, is that what happened to me was very real, and very painful. And while the pain has lessened over time, it’s a bruise that will never truly disappear.
But knowing that there are those, victims especially, who have the courage to speak up for those that don’t makes the darkness a little brighter.
As someone who has watched this ceremony every year for as long a I can remember, that it happened at the Academy Awards made the moment that much better. Though she didn’t win the award, what she accomplished is ultimately more important than any trophy. She validated and recognized the pain of victims who live in a culture that teaches us to look at ourselves for blame, and not our abusers. That two powerful people in our world stood up and told the world that rhetoric is wrong, is more important than the trophy that went home with Sam Smith.
So thank you Lady Gaga. You have allowed me to have some closure regarding my own abuse, and nothing that I ever say, type or think will ever be able to accurately express just how thankful I am. I may not be able to completely absolve my pain, but knowing there are people like you and Diane Warren out there makes that pain more tolerable and that it’s possible to really move past it and live.